Tag Archives: best cities

Ranking the World’s Most Livable Cities

By Dom Nozzi, AICP

What makes a city livable? It’s a commonly debated question — and an important one for cities striving to improve their
quality of life. What makes a community pleasant? What leads its citizens to feel a sense of pride in where they live? There are an enormous number of potential criteria for assessing the livability of a city.

Mostly, my assessment criteria ask: Does the city establish and honor a high-quality, human-scaled public realm — the public
streets, sidewalks, and parks? Are the streets and the spaces between buildings within the human “habitat” modest enough to make humans — not cars — feel comfortable? Do the streets and buildings create an enjoyable, human-scaled  sense of enclosure, instead of leaving people feeling exposed and assaulted in an Anywhere USA parking lot moonscape?

Has public life blossomed? Is there a sense of place? Does a person often find oneself in an outdoor living room providing
ample opportunities for social interaction with neighbors and fellow citizens?

Has the community avoided the path so many contemporary American cities have taken, whereby the community turns its back
on, and neglects, the public realm — striving instead to single-mindedly make cars happy — and focusing its attention solely on improvements to the private realm (the insides of homes, offices, cars and stores)? A car-happy place, in
other words, where there is public squalor and private grandeur? Where “quality of life” can only be found inside a luxurious McMansion home or an expensive car?

Primarily, a livable city recognizes that the foundation for livability is to create a magnificent public realm that instills
civic pride. A place where residents are fiercely protective of the cherished features of their beloved community, and therefore always working to improve their streets, their sidewalks and parks — knowing that these are the
wellsprings of a high quality of life. Where the needs of people are the prime focus, instead of the downwardly spiraling path of providing for the “needs” of cars.

Here are the criteria I use when assessing the livability of a community.

1. A livable city has walkable, mixed use, higher-density, mixed-income neighborhoods where it is a pleasant, short walk to
a store, an office, a transit stop, a friends’ house, a school or a park.

2. A livable city has vibrant, exciting, sociable, charming, human-scaled pedestrian experiences.

3. A livable city has little or no wide, multi-lane, high-speed highway and road infrastructure within its central area.
And few, if any, one-way streets, strip commercial development or cul-de-sacs.

4. A livable city has modest, traffic-calmed, tree-lined streets with on-street parking. Few, if any, roads are larger than 3
lanes in size .

5. A livable city has high-quality public squares and public parks.

6. A livable city has quality, locally-owned cuisine — some of which feature outdoor cafes found on a vibrant
sidewalk.

7. A livable city has quality transit. The service is frequent and easy to use.

8. A livable city has a quality nightlife. The city does not close down at 5 pm.

9. A livable city has quality bicycle and pedestrian facilities and a large number of bicyclists and pedestrians. Life
without a car is perfectly possible and enjoyable.

10. A livable city has little in the way of surface parking — particularly FREE off-street parking.

11. A livable city has a compact downtown full of higher-density housing and diverse retail.

12. A livable city has quality culture (entertainment, speeches, arts, etc.) and a quality
university.

13. A livable city has a high degree of civic pride, and a tradition of working to protect their unique, treasured
features.

14. A livable city has magnificent historic, traditional, classical architecture that induces civic pride.

15. A livable city has little in the way of excruciating, infuriating noise pollution (screaming emergency sirens, leaf
blowers, vacuum trucks, helicopters, etc., are under control).

Given these criteria, here is a list (in no particular order) of the best cities I have visited in the
world:

Rome

Copenhagen

Sienna Italy

San Francisco

Boulder CO

Portland OR

New York City

Lucca Italy

Venice Italy

Paris

Burlington VT

Madison WI

Vancouver BC

Nantucket & Martha’s
Vineyard

Key West

St Augustine FL

Charleston SC

Savannah GA

Missoula and Bozeman MT

Annapolis and
Georgetown

Portland ME

Malmo Sweden

Athens GA

Victoria BC

Boston

Asheville NC

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Top Ten Urban Design Books

By Dom Nozzi, AICP

In no particular order, here are the ten best, most influential urban design books that I have ever read. Each of these books changed the course of my life and how I view city planning and the world at large. I would strongly recommend that each of these ten books be required reading for every local government elected official, planner and engineer in your community.

The High Cost of Free Parking.

By Donald Shoup (2005). My book, “Road to Ruin,” claims the key to quality communities is driven by how we build our roads. But in this groundbreaking work, the best planning book I’ve ever read in my 20 years as a city planner, Shoup persuasively shows that the excessive parking required throughout the nation is the primary factor for how our communities form, and plays a powerful role in how we travel. The parking we require new development to provide is scientifically unsound, economically irrational, counter to our community objectives, and thereby catastrophic for our cities and our quality of life. Shoup makes the overwhelming, disturbing case that how we manage our parking is the lynchpin to the future of our cities. Shoup’s book is exceptionally readable, witty and insightful. The book is thin with regard to urban design concepts, but as Shoup effectively points out, without the proper management of parking, quality urban design is not possible.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

By Jane Jacobs (1961). This book is universally and appropriately considered a classic in urban design, and is a pioneer in accurately describing what is necessary for a healthy city. Many of the timeless concepts used in urban design first gained prominence as a result of this book. It motivated (and continues to motivate) a great many professionals to become urbanists. As the author says, “Lowly, unpurposeful and random as they appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life must grow.”

Cities and Automobile Dependence.

By Jeff Kenworthy and Peter Newman (1989). The revolutionary, breakthrough book that changed my life as a planner. In its day, it turned conventional wisdom on its head with regard to traffic congestion, road widening and parking. Their international survey of cities shows that gas consumption and air pollution go DOWN as a result of congestion. That free-flowing traffic, big roads and excessive amounts of parking INCREASE gas consumption and air pollution (and also destroy community quality of life). This work also clearly shows the fundamental role that transportation plays in how a city forms. “The land use and urban form of cities are…fundamentally shaped by priorities in transportation…the essential character of a city’s land use comes down to how it manages its transport…higher average traffic speed appears to spread the city, creating lower density land use, a greater need for cars, longer travel distances and reduced use of other less polluting or pollution-free modes. The benefits gained in terms of less polluting traffic streams appear to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of extra travel and the resulting bulk of emissions.”

Home From Nowhere.

By James Howard Kunstler (1996). The author combines an impressive understanding of quality urban design with hilarious, vitriolic, provocative observations about architecture in America. I have never laughed so hard in any book I have read. Or learned so much about the awful nature of buildings in the United States. Kunstler has made the point that, “what’s bad about sprawl is not its uniformity, but that it is so uniformly bad.”

Cities in Full.

By Steve Belmont (2002). The best case I’ve ever read about the merits of high residential densities in cities, and why such densities are essential for city health. A stupendous discussion about what ingredients are necessary for the wellbeing of a city. And why it is so important for a downtown to be the centralized community focus for jobs, housing and retail (instead of a polycentric city form). Excellent discussion about why the monocentric city is best for commuting.

The Great Good Place.

By Ray Oldenburg (1991). Oldenburg discusses the crucial importance of “The Third Place,” the place we would traditionally go to after the work day for socializing with friends and regularly finding a sense of community, the place where “everyone knows your name.” They are distinctive, informal gathering places, they make the citizen feel at home, they nourish relationships and a diversity of human contact, they help create a sense of place and community, they invoke a sense of civic pride, they provide numerous opportunities for serendipity, they promote companionship, they allow people to relax and unwind after a long day at work, they are socially binding, they encourage sociability instead of isolation, they make life more colorful, and they enrich public life and democracy. Their disappearance in our culture is unhealthy for our cities because, as Oldenburg points out, they are the bedrock of community life and all the benefits that come from such interaction.

Suburban Nation.

By Andres Duany, Jeff Speck, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk (2000). A superb summary of the downfall of the American neighborhood and how it can be restored. “In [the traditional New England town], one can live above the store, next to the store, five minutes from the store or nowhere near the store, and it is easy to imagine the different age groups and personalities that would prefer each alternative. In this way and others, the traditional neighborhood provides for an array of lifestyles. In conventional suburbia, there is only one available lifestyle: to own a car and to need it for everything.”

Cultural Materialism.

By Marvin Harris (1979). This book is about anthropology, not urban design, but it transformed how I think about human behavior, and therefore plays an essential role in my understanding why humans behave the way they do. For us to be effective in our urban design, it is necessary to know that humans behave largely due to the material conditions they face in their everyday world, and how very little behavior is due to the exhortation of ideas, or educating citizens about how to properly behave.

Trees in Urban Design.

By Henry Arnold (1985). This should be a regularly consulted reference book on the shelves of all urban designers. An enormous wealth of information from an arborist who learned a great many things, in a long career, about the proper placement of trees to achieve better urbanism. How proper tree placement and selection can play a powerful role in creating a better city ambience. His prescriptions, while highly accurate and vitally important for a quality city, quite often run counter to what is frequently sought after by contemporary utility companies and other municipal engineers, which helps explain why most of our cities tend to be quite awful when it comes to their trees.

Stuck in Traffic.

By Anthony Downs (1992). Another landmark book that changed how I think about transportation and city planning. In this highly readable book—required reading, by the way, for elected officials—Downs popularizes the concept of induced travel—what he calls The Triple Convergence. Why it is impossible for us to build our way out of congestion. He writes in an extremely understandable way about topics that are complex, yet crucially important—given the hundreds of billions of public dollars we spend to try to ease congestion.

Once you have read the above, there are ten additional, magnificent books worth your time.

The Car and the City. By Alan Durning (1996).

Urban Sprawl and Public Health. By Howard Frumkin, Lawrence Frank, Richard Jackson (2004).

Getting There. By Stephen B.Goddard (1994).

Crabgrass Frontier. By Kenneth Jackson (1985).

How Cities Work. By Alex Marshall (2001).

The Wealth of Cities. By John Norquist (1998).

Visions for a New American Dream. By Anton C. Nelessen (1994).

Changing Places. By Richard Moe, Wilkie Carter Wilkie (1997).

A Better Place to Live. By Philip Langdon (1994).

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Measuring Walkable Urbanity

By Dom Nozzi, AICP

What are the benefits of Walkable Urbanity?

A community fortunate enough to contain walkable urbanity is a community to cherish, celebrate and protect. A walkable place is lively, physically and financially healthy, fashionable, affordable, sustainable, sociable and safe. It is, in other words, a crystal clear sign of a high quality of life. Almost by definition, an attractive community is walkable and an unpleasant community is unwalkable.

Walkability exists when there is convenient access. The home is so close to a park, a grocery store, a movie theatre, places of work, nightlife and civic institutions that it is an easy, short walk to nearly all of life’s daily destinations. Car ownership must be optional if a walkable lifestyle is to exist.

Ironically, in the 20th Century, travel by car was seen as the most convenient form of travel. Increasingly, however, we are coming full circle and realizing that past civilizations were right. That easy, quick access by foot, not car, is the key to convenience. And, importantly, living a rich, joyful life.

A walkable lifestyle is the most sustainable, low-impact, convivial way of living. Achieving and sustaining a walkable community is the most effective way to promote a high quality of life. More walking — not just for recreation, but also for trips to work, to school, to shops — is an ideal way to:

1. Improve one’s health, by warding off obesity and a host of chronic illnesses.

2. Increase affordability, by substantially reducing travel costs.

3. Get to know your neighbors, because the serendipitous experience of bumping into those who live on your street frequently occurs when one walks, but nearly vanishes when one drives a car. Healthy neighborliness is a necessary ingredient if a sense of community is to be achieved.

4. Promote travel independence and travel choice, because children, a large number of seniors, the disabled, and many low-income people are unable to use a car and are unable to travel on their own when a car is mandatory. Indeed, approximately one-third of all Americans are unable to drive a car.

5. Reduce air & noise pollution, as motor vehicles are a prime source of nearly all forms of noxious discharges to our skies. Indirectly, the compactness required for walkability reduces energy consumption per capita, which effectively reduces regional air pollution. The largest source of noise in most cities comes from car travel

6. Promote a human-scaled neighborhood, because the existence of pedestrians leverages provision of modest sizes, speeds and dimensions. Very little is more effective in creating a quality of life.

7. Reduce stormwater & “heat island” problems, because a reduction in use of motorized vehicles results in a reduction in petroleum products being released to surface- and groundwaters, and a reduction in the amount of impervious surface that must be provided. “Heat island” problems decline because of the reduction in needed impervious surfaces

8. Reduce injuries and deaths, because motorized vehicle travel results in tens of thousands of injuries and deaths each year.

9. Increase the feasibility for smaller, locally-owned businesses, as larger pedestrian volumes are a necessary ingredient for the establishment and survival of smaller, neighborhood-based shops and services.

10. Increase citizen surveillance, as larger numbers of pedestrians on sidewalks increases the “eyes-on-the-street” phenomenon (also known as “citizen surveillance”), which increases public safety.

A walkable urbanism featuring convenient access is a powerful way for a community to attract and retain Richard Florida’s “Creative Class”, the young, smart citizens that communities depend on for a health economy and healthy overall community. “Brain Drain” is most likely to occur in placeless cities which lack the character, vibrancy, “hip-ness” and attractiveness provided inherently by a walkable community.

Ironically, despite all of the talk of the need for “sustainability,” improving the local economy, and improving neighborhood quality in America today, walkability is rapidly vanishing as a lifestyle choice throughout the nation.

Measuring Walkable Urbanity

Ann Breen and Dick Rigby (InTown Living, 2004) provide what I believe are clear, accurate criteria that describe the essential elements of walkable urbanity. They list five characteristics, which they point out should be present, to some extent, in all places that wish to be considered “urban.” Besides the obvious “walkability” criterion, they list

* Density

* Diversity

* Hipness

* Public Transit

I would add “Human Scale” to the list, although this can be considered to be implicit within the “Walkability” criterion. Properly modest building heights (no more than 5 stories, ideally), modest lot sizes, modest lot widths and building setbacks from streets and intersections, as well as modest dimensions for street widths, block lengths and intersection turning radii, are indispensable elements of urbanity (streets should also be connected, instead of cul-de-sac’d, to reduce walking distances).

A crucial scaling mechanism for creating a human scale pertains to off-street parking. If such parking is in front and pushes the front of the building far back from the street or intersection, all semblance of human scale is lost.

Human scale sends the powerful message that a neighborhood or street is designed to welcome pedestrians rather than cars. The ambiance is one of safety, peacefulness, dignity and neighborliness. Walking is welcomed, and the character created promises that the stroll will be delightfully interesting, thereby ensuring frequent walks.

BIPSM

While walkability “guru” Dan Burden lists his own criteria for walkable places on his web site, I really like this from him in April 2006: “…a powerful new way to measure the walkability and livability of a community…”Bump Into’s Per Square Minute.” (BIPSM)

BIPSM measures how many friends or acquaintances one bumps into per minute of walking on a sidewalk. A superb measure of the level of conviviality and sense of community.

A Comparison of Walkability

The National Resources Defense Council (Environmental Characteristics of Smart Growth Neighborhoods: An Exploratory Case Study) compares two neighborhoods in Sacramento, California with dramatically different densities, to show how density plays a profound role in creating walkability.

Metro Square

(20 dwelling units/acre) North Natomas

(6 dwelling units/acre)

Distance to:

Convenience Store 815 feet 15,388 feet

Supermarket 1,941 feet 14,458 feet

School 1,962 feet 17,181 feet

Bus Stop 666 feet 11,055 feet

Parks 347 feet 702 feet

Jobs in One Mile 29,266 0

How Many Businesses Are Within Walking Distance of Your Home?

A powerful way to assess the walkability of your home location or a location you are considering moving to is to determine the number of businesses within a one-mile walk of your home. A quick and easy way comes from Alan Durning (an author who wrote the superb book, The Car & the City). With this tool, you can, within seconds, find out how many businesses you can walk to from your home.

The method:

To get a count of businesses within a mile of your home (your “walkshed”), go to the Qwest online phone directory: http://www.dexonline.com/#, select the business listings, type “all” in the category field, click “near a street address,” type in your address, and choose “1 mile.” The Qwest site will rapidly list how many businesses there are within a one-mile walk of your front door, as well as their name and address.

My house has 148 businesses within a one-mile walking distance. Not bad, but homes within a big city downtown are usually within a mile of several THOUSANDS of businesses. But still, the number near my home is a lot better than the suburban home I grew up in when I was a boy. That home has a score of 0.

Durning goes on to point out that more than one quarter of car trips in the United States are shorter than one mile. That is a LOT of trips that could have been walked. (In my opinion, most of these short trips are by car rather than by foot because for at least 98 percent of all car trips that Americans take, there is a free parking space at the destination, which BEGS us to arrive by car.)

Durning also indicates that “realtors provide detailed information to prospective home buyers on schools and resale values. They could as easily report the Walkshed Index–high scores translate into thousands of dollars of potential savings in fuel and car payments.”

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